We recently spent time in Kampala, Uganda, working with a range of stakeholders from NGOs, donors and government on best practice digital fieldwork. This article provides a summary of the incredible insights and discussion that emerged during the workshops.

Transitioning from paper-based to digital data management systems is typically an iterative process influenced by a number of factors, of which many are external to the organisation. Among the most important ones are the existence of a legal and regulatory framework conducive to digital data management, donor support for innovative data initiatives, and the existence of early adopters that can showcase the power of digital systems. These aspects are largely country specific, and so require research to be conducted in the relevant geography. 

In order to better understand the ecosystem within which NGOs operate – and to get a chance to engage directly with stakeholders, current users, and potential users of our platform, Mobenzi organises regular visits to the field. 

At the end of August, a delegation from Mobenzi set off to Uganda. The objective of the visit was threefold:

  1. Engage with donor agencies
  2. Engage with government agencies
  3. Collect feedback from end-users

Engage with donor agencies 

Goal: Better understand how the work of donor agencies is impacted by the digital revolution, appreciate their contribution to this movement, and get insights regarding future trends affecting the data space.

In Kampala, we met the two largest donors operating in the country – the European Union and USAID – as well as a number of smaller agencies that are particularly influential in the ICT4D space. Our discussions were inspiring, and they highlighted the extent to which donors are enthusiastic regarding the uptake of digital platforms by their grantees.

Their message was clear: as taxpayers demand detailed information on how their money is spent, donor agencies are put under great pressure to set up sophisticated accountability mechanisms that are able to measure the impact of their country’s aid budget. In order to be functional, these systems have to be fed regularly with relevant and accurate reports generated by a partner working on the ground – and the definition of “regular” has evolved over time. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see NGOs being asked to report on their activities on a monthly or even weekly basis. 

Within this framework, digital tools are seen as an essential element of the equation as they facilitate the automatization of an important chunk of reporting work. Effective digital platforms enable the creation of standard reports that can be queried and updated regularly with a simple click. This prevents teams from drowning in reporting work, freeing time for the actual work that needs to be done on the ground. Accountability and value for money – it makes sense!

[The donors’] message was clear: as taxpayers demand detailed information on how their money is spent, donor agencies are put under great pressure to set up sophisticated accountability mechanisms that are able to measure the impact of their country’s aid budget.

So, yes, donors are strongly supporting the use of digital systems for data management. We asked what form their support takes, and the response came in a straightforward manner: 

“You’ll have a hard time finding a call for proposals in Uganda that does not include a paragraph on digital systems; this is an important element of the selection process. We want our grantees to have the systems required to give us quality data.” 

Solome Sevcume – Strategic Information Specialist at USAID Uganda

We were also informed that the discussion around overheads and management costs is shifting in the same direction: donors are now open – sometimes even eager – to reimburse costs associated with the setting up of their implementing partners’ digital system. Quite a smart move in our view, as evidence shows that going digital leads to an increase in savings and a reduction of costs.

We then asked, “What’s ahead of us?” The donor agencies we met emphasised the need to break silos and promote integrated approaches: 

“Poverty is a complex phenomenon that calls for programmes that tackle multiple market failures simultaneously; donor-funded projects are expected to be increasingly multi-sectoral by nature, involving more partners than in the past.” 

Aloys Lorkers – Head of Sector at EU Uganda

But of course, as the number of stakeholders increases, issues around coordination become more and more complex. A human brain will increasingly struggle to “hold it together” unless it is supported by a suite of digital tools that effectively and accurately presents programme data in a meaningful manner. This confirmed Mobenzi’s hypothesis that there’s a need for visualisation tools that can display programme data in a meaningful way.

Engage with government agencies

Goal: Engage with government agencies and relevant ministries to better understand the legal and regulatory frameworks impacting data management in the social impact sector.

Due to data management’s cross-sectoral nature, we had to meet representatives from various public institutions to get the whole picture. This included the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda, the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development and the Ministry of Health. Surprisingly, the same two messages were consistently delivered, meeting after meeting: data safety and system interoperability.

The same two messages were consistently delivered: data safety and system interoperability.

With the civil war that intensified in South Sudan, Uganda has become the largest refugee-hosting nation in Africa, and among the largest in the world. This is, of course, a massive challenge for NGOs in charge of delivering basic services in refugee camps. In order to facilitate the logistics of their operations, long datasets storing information on a vulnerable population have been created. The Government of Uganda believes this is fine, because NGOs need to know who they serve, but concerns are raised about security: “In a context of intense ethnic tensions, some of the information stored by NGOs is extremely sensitive and needs to be kept confidential.”

Responding to this challenge, the Government of Uganda now demands that NGOs operating in the country invest in infrastructure that guarantees the security and the safety of data gathered from the ground. In practice, this means that datasets must be encrypted and stored on servers that comply with the highest global standards. Paper-based is sometimes being used, but this is not best practice. 

There’s no established chain of custody with paper-based data; there’s no kept history of who did what. With digital systems, events affecting a dataset are logged and as a result modifications can be tracked. 

In order to enforce standards, NGOs are now being requested to sign MoUs on data management with the Office of the Prime Minister and UNHCR, and random controls are carried out.

The second point made by the government is of equal importance. 

We discovered that ministries and public agencies are investing a considerable amount of resources to create national information systems, particularly in the health and agriculture sectors. NGOs operating in these spaces are expected to feed the system like any other public sector. When we raised the fact that this creates dual reporting channels – one directed to the donor and one to the ministry – the response of government officials was immediate and confident: 

This is not a good excuse. A good data management system has an application programming interface (API), which enables data to be seamlessly extracted from the platform into any third party system. NGOs are welcome to use the digital system of their choice, but it needs to use standards that enable easy integration with third party systems.

We couldn’t agree more.

Collect feedback from end-users 

Goal: Use end-users’ feedback to continue improving Mobenzi’s Software-as-a-Service (SaS) platform and identify organisations that need support to digitise their data systems.

The last objective of the mission was to engage with current and potential clients to share experiences, present our platforms, and introduce the exciting, new features We had a bunch of new functionalities we were keen to share with the Uganda NGO crowd.

A half-day workshop attended by about 20 NGOs was organised in Kampala. A nice mix of large, international NGOs, research institutes, and humanitarian agencies joined us. Following a proven format, participants were first invited to share their “war stories” and daydream about the ideal digital tools that would transform the way they work. This confirmed our previous experiences: end-users know exactly what they need and, if given a chance, will come up with articulate proposals that make perfect sense. 

End-users know exactly what they need and, if given a chance, will come up with articulate proposals that make perfect sense.

We talked about the logistics around device and people management, system integration, our intuitive form designer, as well as analytics and data sharing. We guided the conversation toward what we believe are important criteria to keep in mind when selecting a digital tool: issues around data security, availability of technical support, the quality of the data hosting, and more. Eventually we presented the latest release of the Mobenzi SaS platform. Many technical questions were asked. We know that the devil is in the details, and it was great to see participants so spot-on with their questions.

Our week in Uganda was incredibly busy, but hugely inspiring. Discussions that took place during the trip helped us to better understand the context within which our clients operate, and takeaways will inform future developments of our platform. We’re now back in South Africa, continuing the dialogue with a number of NGOs operating in Uganda that are keen to explore new ways of bringing their data to life.

The team is already thinking about the next visit, so stay tuned to be informed of dates and locations! If you’re interested in attending a workshop in the future, please get in touch on info@mobenzi.com.